A visually rich, beautifully crafted and thematically engaging cinematic essay, Ship Of Theseus sails smoothly and felicitously all the way to its destination.
The film weaves a triptych of stories into a tapestry of human experiences that add up to a remarkable philosophical exposition about individual identities and value systems.
Written and directed by debutant Anand Gandhi, Ship Of Theseus is at once introspective, provocative and intriguing. It is as assured a first film as any that we might have seen in the history of Indian cinema.
Sounds like an accolade too high? Every bit of the praise is fully deserved.
It is likely that certain sections of the audience will troop out of the auditorium feeling a touch unsure of what exactly to make of Ship Of Theseus.
However, those that aren’t comfortably stuck in the rut of familiar and pre-digested tales would, at the end of this experience, be taking another significant step towards becoming a more evolved audience.
Ship Of Theseus is at times somewhat verbose for the emphasis of its three stories is more on ideas than on action. So it makes greater demands on the audience than a mainstream Mumbai movie.
But despite posing many a philosophical question, the film never slips into didactic mode. The concepts that the narrative throws up and explores flow in a gentle, unhurried arc and are easy to comprehend and savour.
Ship Of Theseus is indeed unlike any Mumbai film one has seen before, and its unusual cast of actors isn’t the sole reason why it is a world apart.
Egyptian filmmaker Aida El-Kashef is Aliya, a visually challenged photographer who banks on sheer intuition, voice directions from her camera and some help from her boyfriend to click evocative black-and-white images of life in Mumbai. But she encounters a major creative struggle when she has to view the world in a new light after her vision is restored thanks to a new cornea.
Theatre doyen Neeraj Kabi plays Maitreya, a spiritual guru and animal rights activist whose beliefs are tested when he falls ill and is in need of a liver transplant and medication.
The medicines are produced by the very pharmaceutical firms that he has opposed all his life for their lab tests on animals. So the ascetic refuses any form of treatment, to the consternation of a young sceptical acolyte (Vinay Shukla).
Sohum Shah, who is also co-producer of the film, essays the role of Naveen, a hard-nosed and successful stockbroker who stumbles upon an organ transplant racket when he has reason to suspect that the donated kidney inside his body may have been acquired illegally.
These three strands, which intersect in a surprising and wonderfully realized climax, have one obvious commonality: a character that has received a donated organ. And that, in turn, ties in with the central philosophical allusion contained in the film’s title.
The mythic Ship Of Theseus, over time, had its entire structure replaced, plank by plank. So, was it, at the end of all the changes it underwent, the same ship?
Anand Gandhi stretches that point to ask: is an individual with a new organ the same person? The film asks many other questions about identity, faith and life’s choices, but does not look for or offer any easy answers.
Ship Of Theseus is a low-budget digitally shot film but there is no way of telling. Cinematographer Pankaj Kumar’s de-saturated frames are interspersed with luminous images of startling beauty. They capture both the energy and the chaos of Mumbai in a single sweep.
But such is the director’s approach to the narrative design of the film that the location does not necessarily impact the nature of the statement that the film seeks to make.
The teeming metropolis that Ship Of Theseus is set in is a tangible entity and provides an authentic urban ambience to the narrative, but it isn’t the reason for what the film is.
In fact, Ship Of Theseus is so universal in scope and appeal that the human, artistic and ethical issues it raises would be valid anywhere in the world.
The film draws its strength primarily from its sheer originality. It has a pace and rhythm that draws the audience into its world without much apparent effort.
Each of the three stories is bolstered by a formidable performance. Neeraj Kabi’s interpretation of the uncompromising monk is a dazzling master class.
Aida El-Kashef touches both the core of the character and spirit of the film to absolute perfection. And Sohum Shah slips into the skin of the stockbroker without the slightest trace of artifice.
Doubtless, Ship Of Theseus is an extraordinary achievement. To miss it would be tantamount to missing one of the finest Indian films of recent times.